Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Obama, please avoid the Ritter model

Professor Paul Light in today's Washington Post advises the President-elect,

Obama would be wise to recognize these limits on his first-year agenda. Instead of throwing a super-size agenda at Congress, he should start with a few tightly focused progressive initiatives that will whet the political appetite for more. His best opportunity for a grand agenda may not be 2009 but 2013. By proving that he can develop a focused agenda, implement it successfully and challenge the status quo in doing so, he can set the stage for his own Great Society. Staying small in Year One may lay the foundation for going large in Year Five. Think new New Frontier for now.

This may come as a surprise to Professor Light but our Presidents serve but four years at a time and are not guaranteed a second term. This type of small bore, hold on until the second term strategy is exactly what has left our current governor floundering. You cannot bank political capital, it simply vanishes if you do not use it. In 2006 Ritter was elected in a landslide and voters gave him expanded Democratic majorities in the legislature. He took that capital and proceeded to punt on health care reform, pass on transportation planning and nibble around the edges of education reform. In the past year the governor has seen the voters goodwill evaporate, his polling has plummeted from 70% approval to just over 50%. This past election the governor made a personal appeal to voters for passage of Amendment 58 and the voters roundly rejected him.

Barack Obama should not be planning to make his bold and liberal stand in 2013. He should cash in on his big win and the mood of the country to launch an aggressive agenda now. Here's Paul Krugman yesterday,

The political lesson is that economic missteps can quickly undermine an electoral mandate. Democrats won big last week — but they won even bigger in 1936, only to see their gains evaporate after the recession of 1937-38. Americans don’t expect instant economic results from the incoming administration, but they do expect results, and Democrats’ euphoria will be short-lived if they don’t deliver an economic recovery.

The economic lesson is the importance of doing enough. F.D.R. thought he was being prudent by reining in his spending plans; in reality, he was taking big risks with the economy and with his legacy. My advice to the Obama people is to figure out how much help they think the economy needs, then add 50 percent. It’s much better, in a depressed economy, to err on the side of too much stimulus than on the side of too little.

In short, Mr. Obama’s chances of leading a new New Deal depend largely on whether his short-run economic plans are sufficiently bold. Progressives can only hope that he has the necessary audacity.

Krugman is exactly right. Delaying a bold agenda is the far riskier strategy - both for Obama and the nation.

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